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River Journey

River Journey

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Author Clarence Jonk, Introduction by William Least Heat-Moon

Minnesota Historical Society Press (April 2, 2003)

A small classic of travel writing and an indelible portrait of a young man coming of age during the Great Depression.


In 1933, Clarence Jonk, full of youthful naïveté and an urge for adventure, decided to build a houseboat from scrap materials and float it the length of the Mississippi River. In the tradition of Huckleberry Finn and Henry David Thoreau, Jonk recounts a first-person tale of high adventure complete with wry and lyrical observations on life, love, and nature that capture the beauty and harshness of existence along the Mississippi River.

Hoping to live rent free on a St. Paul lake in hard times, Jonk, a carefree college student and would-be poet, cobbled together his own houseboat from empty oil drums, scrap lumber, and two old Model T engines. Then, evicted by the local authorities, Jonk hauled his rudderless craft through city traffic to the Mississippi and boldly set out from Minneapolis bound for New Orleans in the chill month of October and into the teeth of an early winter.

Accompanied at times by his sweetheart, friends, and a dog, Jonk fell overboard, was almost capsized by a blizzard, encountered hostile moonshiners, and fled angry farmers while scrounging for provisions on shore. Inexperience, hasty plans, and little cash made the journey a harrowing yet entertaining one as the boat reached La Crosse, Wisconsin, before being locked perilously in shifting ice for the winter.

Author information

Clarence Jonk (1906-87) worked on the Mississippi as a lockman and carpenter, then became a farmer, World War II munitions-plant worker, building contractor, quarry operator, and finally, a full-time writer and inventor of toys and games.

William Least Heat-Moon is the author of the acclaimed Blue Highways: A Journey into America, PrairyErth: (A Deep Map), and River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat across America.

Reviews and news

"The picture we get is that of an accident-prone poet aboard a Rube Goldberg houseboat as it careens down the Upper Mississippi ricocheting from bank to bank."
New York Times Book Review

"River Journey contains great snapshots of the Great Depression but its true subject is youth. Who but a youthful optimist would see voyaging down the Mississippi on a homemade, rudderless boat not as folly but a terrific adventure? And it is."
John Hildebrand, author of Reading the River: A Voyage Down the Yukon and Mapping the Farm: The Chronicle of a Family

  • 240 pages
  • 5.5 x 8.25 inches
  • ISBN: 9780873514354

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